This past August 21, the world, especially Czech Republic, commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Prague Spring invasion. Various speakers spoke against the evils of communism, and how the Prague Spring invasion from the USSR and other Warsaw Pact troops threw the nation back into darkness. Luckily for me, I was in Prague in August, receiving my TEFL certificate, and was able to witness many of the commemorations of this pivotal point in Czech history.
In 1968, Czechoslovakia experienced a brief period of liberation and artistic creation, called Prague Spring. Coined by then president Alexander Dubcek as “socialism with a human face,” Czech society loosened from a previously oppressive and completely socialized society. Czechoslovakia experienced a burst in creation, giving this time period its name, “Zlata sedesata” (the golden sixties). But, upset with the direction Czechoslovakia was headed in, and wary the country--as seen by many as the connection between East and West Europe--would inspire other countries to adopt looser communist governments, troops from the USSR, ordered by stalinist president Antonin Novotny, along with other Warsaw Pact countries, rolled through Czechoslovakia and re-instated strict communism. All in all, around 250,000 troops invaded Czechoslovakia, including some 6,300 tanks and 250 airplanes. Around 72 Czechs and Slovaks were killed during the invasion, and some 270 injured. Although the numbers may seem low for something commemorated as such, the invasion symbolizes the loss of freedom and the catalyst of many more deaths during the 'normalization' back into the Communist way of life.
During the week leading up to the Tuesday, many of the historic locations in Prague housed special events to honor the lives lost in the reoccupation of Czechoslovakia. In Wenceslas Square, where citizens--typically students--historically protested, and where Warsaw tanks famously fired at the Radio station during the reoccupation, several organizations, including Vojenský Historický Ústav Praha and others, sponsored the showing of documentaries on a blow-up screen, posters displaying images of the brutal invasion, speakers, and singers. The goal of the commemoration was twofold: to remember the victims of Communism, and to make sure that Communism and similar ideologies never return. Their logo reflects their goal: “Aby sny nezešedly” (Let not the dreams (read "nightmares") go grey).
On Tuesday, August 21, many important locations had commemorations. A concert, organized by Czech Radio, was held in Wenceslas square, where many songs about the invasion were sung. A special video and maps were projected onto the National Museum nearby. Various museums had special exhibits on the invasion, free to the public on Tuesday. In addition, in Kampa, a grassy, tranquil area by the Vltava river, several speakers recounted the events of the haunting day. About 300 melancholic people, holding Czech flags and banners, surrounded a small stage which held three speakers. Among them, a USSR expatriate Mr. Gorbanevska spoke against the ignorance of Communism.
Gorbanevska’s family has a detailed history with Communism. The repression of Prague Spring happened when he was young, and living in Russia at the time. His mother Natalya Gorbanevskaya, a strong proponent of freedom, and vocalist against the USSR, was one of the eight people who protested on the Red Square in Moscow several days after the Prague Spring invasion. She brought young Gorbanevska with her, as well as her two other children. All eight protestors were swept up by the KGB within seven minutes of sitting in the square with a Czechoslovakian flag and a banner which read things such as: “мы теряем лучших друзей” (We are losing our best friends), “Ať žije svobodné a nezávislé Československo“ (Long live free and independent Czechoslovakia), and “Позор оккупантам!” (Shame to the occupiers). Most of the seven were subject to harsh treatment, including Gorbanevska’s mother, who was later sent to a psychiatric hospital for being a dissident, diagnosed with “sluggish schizophrenia.” She has been celebrated as a hero in the West, and is well-known for her numerous acts of courage and literary works on the necessity of freedom.
At the talk, Gorbanevska humbly opened his speech in a highly accented Czech, saying “Odpust mi, nemluvim Cesky” (Forgive me, I don’t speak Czech). A translator stood by his side and translated his Russian into Czech for the younger people in the crowd. For a people who had to learn Russian under the occupation, hearing Russian would be a hard thing on such a day. Gorbanevsky’s opener, however, created a platform on which he and the Czechs listening could together mourn the invasion. He continued to say, “I wanted to share a few words. A normal person to normal people.”
Gorbanevsky’s message was brief and direct: we must never forget the atrocities of Communism, and must actively reject it in all of its future forms. He dwells on current Russians’ ignorance of the repression, and how refusing to learn about the evils of the USSR based on the fact that these events took place in the past is an unforgivable excuse. If we forget the history of Communism--how it first started out as a political party which gained much popularity but evolved into a soul-killing machine--we risk repeating it.
In his talk, he chastises the Czech president, Miloš Zeman, for his weak stance against the Communist party in the Czech Republic. To the mention of Zeman, a rustling went through the crowd, stirring everyone a brief period of whistling in disapproval of Zeman. They’d been stabbed in the back by the secret police, their own brothers, countless times during Communist occupation. Betrayal by their president is close to unbearable.
Gorbanevsky concluded his speech by encouraging the crowd to never forget the tanks rolling into Prague, and to never tolerate limitations of freedom. He encouraged everyone in the crowd to continue protesting injustice everywhere, even if they risk persecution. Protesting evil is the right thing to do.
Following Gorbanevsky’s speech, the founder of the “The Memory of a Nation” project, a non-profit organization, talked about his work in sharing stories of normal people’s lives under Communism. His work has the same goal as those who organized commemorations throughout Prague--that people should never forget Communism, and never stop fighting for freedom.
After all of the speakers held the stage, a young singer was called to the stage. She sang the Czech national anthem, “Kde domov muy” (Where my home is), and the whole crowd joined. Following the song, members of the crowd lit candles for people they knew who died at the hands of the Communists during the occupation (the intellectuals, celebrities, and politicians who wouldn’t promote the USSR, as well as many others). They processed from Kampa to the statues memorializing the enemies of the state, and lay the candles at the feet of the statues. At the statue’s side, a scout (Scouts had been outlawed under Communism) held up the Czech flag. People reverently placed their candles down by the statues, and quietly related their stories to their neighbors.
This experience taught me many things. It explained the quiet stillness in the crowded metros, and the hard, emotionless face of the passersby. Communism may be gone in the Czech Republic, but its effects still linger. We must never forget what Communism was, and how it came to be here, but we also must be willing to move on and trust others again, rejoice, and enjoy this life.
Stay tuned for my impression and recap of the Museum of Communism next.
Interesting links for follow-up research:
Jessica De Gree
Jessica teaches 5th grade English and History as well as 11th grade Spanish III at a Great Hearts Academy in Glendale, AZ. In addition to teaching, she coaches JV girls basketball and is a writing tutor for The Classical Historian Online Academy. Jessica recently played basketball professionally in Tarragona, Spain, where she taught English ESL and tutored Classical Historian writing students. In 2018, she received her Bachelor's degree in English and Spanish from Hillsdale College, MI.